Saturday, July 24, 2010

Speaking of the Intimate Sphere

Dr. von Hildebrand discusses how the vulgar and banal oppose the sacred.
5.  “Happy Talk” and Asceticism

It must be recognized: “happy talk” about sex and sexuality, even if it is wrapped in religious language, cannot communicate the full truth about God’s plan for human sexuality unless it includes the difficulties of living out an elevated moral life.

Sex enthusiasts in the Church like West often speak about the “raging hormones” many feel growing up, but the solution they propose to cure it—stimulate people even more, with a hyper-sexualized presentation of Catholic teaching—can easily aggravate the situation. Moreover, they consistently ignore the one successful remedy the Church has always called upon to address this malady: asceticism, the spirit of renunciation and sacrifice. It is crucial to a healthy moral and spiritual life; it is a way of collaborating with God’s grace, to “achieve victory over pleasure,” as the pre-Christian Plato wisely said.

Why does St. Paul  teach us, “And they that are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh with the passions and lusts” (Galatians 5: 24)? Why did St. Benedict throw himself into a thorny bush? Why did St. Francis engage in self-mortification? Because, following Scripture, they believed that disciplining their bodily desires, was indispensable to overcoming temptation.

If such measures are considered unnecessary and too “extreme” today,  other forms of asceticism—an intense prayer life, frequent confession, modesty in dress and language, and avoiding all possible occasions of sin-- should not be considered so. One does not have to be a puritan or kill-joy to know that Christopher West’s infatuation with pop culture and rock and roll is a long way from the austere spirit of the New Testament. Grace is what is needed to be pure; the saints teach us the way.

Asceticism, under proper guidance, which respects the integrity of the body, should never be dismissed as “masochistic,” psychologically damaging, or treated as a form of Freudian “repression,”-- least of all by Catholics.  For  it is Catholics who are called to a higher state of life; and it is sheer illusion to believe that moral perfection can be pursued without this purifying discipline.

Part 2:  Speaking of the Intimate Sphere

That the intimate sphere should be treated with reverence necessarily affects the way we speak about it, and this concerns educators, in a particular way, since they must adapt their speech to the needs of their hearers.  How is one to address individuals who have been so influenced by the vulgarity of our age? How can one teach them to view love and sexuality in an exalted and reverent way?

1. The Risk of Vulgarizing the Holy

We live in a thoroughly secularized and de-Christianized culture (what my husband would have described as an “anti-culture”). For this reason,  "spiritual sensitivity" is  deficient in most of us. A few examples come to mind:

When a parish priest refers to God from the pulpit as "the nice guy upstairs,” many people consider this to be a fun way of referring to God: it is chummy; it makes them feel comfortable; it is a "democratic approach.”  St. Teresa of Jesus would shed tears. She always refers to God as Su Majesdad, for indeed He is King.
When another parish priest, preparing grammar school children for their first confession, referred to this awesome sacrament as a "fun experience,” I felt like crying. This awesome moment, when the soul turns to God for forgiveness, is stripped of its supernatural character and presented as "amusing". It is a modern desecration. Yet, many people in the pews, who have no perception of these profound spiritual evils, would feel awed if they had the secular "honor" of being invited to the White House by President Obama.
This is the reason, I believe, the sacredness of sex is so often addressed by using a vocabulary which makes it impossible to have the reverence called for.  This is why people feel perfectly comfortable discussing personal and intimate matters in public-- matters, which, by their very nature, call for tremendous discretion.
An analogy comes to mind: Because of my deep love for classical music, I have been in contact with great musicians. What I discovered is that they have such an exquisite sensitivity to sounds that they perceive the slightest "disharmony" which escapes most of us.  Am I wrong in fearing that "modern man," deafened by sounds, poisoned by evil images and pictures, can no longer register cacophonic sounds which harm the sensitive enamel of their souls? This is why I often hear people say: “I do not see why this is shocking.  I do not see why this is wrong.  I do not see why others call this coarse.”

As a veteran in the classroom, these are remarks that I heard ad nauseam. That a person does not “see” an object referred to does not mean that there is nothing to be seen.  There are cases of hallucinations. But much more frequently people are morally and spiritually near-sighted and this explains why they can say "honestly" that they do not see.

Years ago, Dietrich von Hildebrand gave a beautiful talk on the words of the blind man of Jericho saying to Christ: That I may see.  The saints perceive.  Most of us do not see, for we are more or less blind and desperately need correcting glasses.  These glasses are provided by humility—an awareness that we need help.

“Holy Sex”?
Christopher West’s presentations consistently use language that lacks sensitivity, thereby obscuring the good inherent in marriage and the marital embrace.

A particular example of this vulgarization, and its relationship to the work of Christopher West, is West’s glowing review of Gregory Popcak's book Holy Sex (a tempting title).

I have read hundreds of book reviews in my life, and cannot ever recall having come across a recommendation quite like this one, with such overabundant, unrestrained praise. “Every engaged and married couple on the planet should have a copy,” writes West about Holy Sex. He continues:

“Popcak goes right between the sheets, shall we say, providing a very frank, honest, and practical discussion of the sexual joys and challenges of the marital bed. I must admit, even I, on occasion, found myself taken aback by Popcak’s forthrightness. ... Even if his boldness is occasionally jarring, that’s precisely what’s so refreshing about this book. It tells it like it is and, by doing so, gives couples permission to face and discuss delicate issues. More importantly, Holy Sex gives couples tools to overcome the many difficulties they inevitably face on the road to a truly holy sex life.” (From, West’s column, “Dr. Ruth Meets Thomas Aquinas,” posted on his website,

Readers are left to wonder that they should feel sorry for married people who, because of their age, had no access to such a treasure when they were young. The question comes up: What about the holy and very happy marriages that have been among the blessings of the Catholic Church through the ages? What about the very happy marriage of St. Elizabeth of Hungary? How did all these Catholic couples experience such love, and achieve such content, deprived as they were of such modern “classics” as  Popcak’s  book on sex?

I have no doubt what my husband would say about all this: he would not have “joined the party,” but rather, reserved glowing  praise for genuine Catholic classics, like St. Augustine’s Confessions and St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life.

Having acquainted myself (reluctantly) with Popcak’s Holy Sex, I do not believe it merits the extravagant praise West grants it.  I do know that my husband would never write such a review. For one thing, he would have strongly objected to the book’s graphic, explicit nature, which West mistakenly sees as “boldness” rather than vulgarity. For another, Dietrich would have vigorously opposed Popcak's so-called ”one rule”--that married couples “may do whatever they wish,” as long as they don’t use contraception, “both feel loved and respected,” and the marital act culminates within the woman. (p. 193). As another reviewer commented , this reduces marital love to a lowest common denominator, where “everything else can be left to the judgment of each couple. A variety of sexual positions, oral sex, sexual toys, and role playing are all judged permissible as long as couples follow the ‘one rule.’” (, 2008)

These ideas would have struck Dietrich von Hildebrand as abhorrent. It is precisely because the marital bed is sacred that one should approach acts within it with enormous reverence.  Degrading and perverse sexual behavior-- even it is it done by a married couple, who do not practice contraception-- should be condemned, as an assault on human dignity.  The “pornification” of marriage should be resisted as vigorously as the pornification of our culture.

I cannot describe what Dietrich thought of pornography: the very  word triggered an expression of horror on his noble face. The same thing is true of sodomy.  He had such a sense for the dignity of human persons that any posture, which sins against this dignity, was repulsive to him. It is in this context, that we should judge Popcak’s shocking suggestion (p. 248) that “as Christopher West has noted in his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, there is nothing technically forbidding a couple from engaging” in sodomy (provided the husband culminates the normal sex act within his wife); and that, while he discourages the practice of marital sodomy, “nevertheless, following Augustine’s dictum and in the absence of greater clarification from the Church, couples are free to exercise prudential judgment” in this regard.

That a Catholic author would cite “Augustine’s dictum” (presumably the much-misinterpreted “Love, and do what you will”) as a justification for sodomy would have broken my husband’s heart. Furthermore, the fact that an act is not formally condemned does not entitle us to believe that it is right or good.  When Cain murdered his brother, he was not disobeying a formal order from God, but he knew he was committing a grave moral evil--against the Natural Law--already written on mankind’s heart. Similarly, petri dish "conception” is an abomination in and by itself, even though it is not in the Ten Commandments.  It is against the dignity of a person to be "made" in a laboratory.  "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mathew 11: 15)
In this context, it is important for couples to avoid what Canon Jacques Leclerc calls “any corruption of love” in the marital bed. He writes: “There are many who believe that once they are married, they may do whatever they like.”   But “they do not understand,” he continues, that “the search for every means of increasing pleasure can be a perversion.” He cautions: “Now, there are even among the most Christian young people many who know nothing of the moral aspect of the problem and have only the rudimentary idea that everything is forbidden outside marriage, but that within marriage everything is allowed. It is thus a good thing to remember that the morality of conjugal relations does not allow that pleasure should be sought by every means, but calls for a sexual life that is at the same time healthy, simple and normal.” (Marriage: A Great Sacrament, 1951, p. 88). These are sentiments which my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, would have thoroughly approved.

The Use of Analogy

This discussion of the vulgarization of the intimate sphere, by means of language, leads me to a topic of great importance, which I can only sketch briefly: analogy.  Human language seeks ways of expressing those higher realities that are beyond the grasp of our senses.  God has left signs of His unseen greatness in the earthly realities that we see, and this is a blessing.  But there is also the danger of confusing the beauty of creatures with higher Heavenly realities. The other insight to remember is that analogy, in the AGE OF FAITH, was understood in a way that is completely different from our age of secularism, relativism, subjectivism and eroticism. Hence, a beautiful, sacred book like “the Song of Songs,” which draws parallels between God’s love and romantic love-, is bound to be misinterpreted by the modern, sex-obsessed mind.

One of the many great contributions of Plato is to have perceived that the lower reality is a faint (and therefore imperfect) copy of the higher reality. The higher gives us a key to an understanding of the lower: absolute justice sheds light on the imperfect justice found in the world.

This tradition was highlighted by St. Augustine, and developed by St. Bonaventure, Cardinal Newman, and Dietrich von Hildebrand, to mention some of  Augustine's disciples.

Modern Reversal

But our "modern" world, having cut its roots from the past, is constantly tempted to reverse this order, assuming it is the material reality which has the key to so-called spiritual things.  This is why Moleschott writes that there is a perfect parallel between the kidneys producing the urine, and the brain producing thought. This is why Freud conquered many thinkers by telling him that sex is the key to what is called love. Unfortunately, West follows the Freudian thought, looking for understanding in the lower rather than the higher. Love is the form of sex, not vice versa.

This false mentality of analogy was strongly opposed by Dietrich von Hildebrand, even though it was (and still is) countenanced by many contemporary writers. Chesterton, on the other hand, took my husband’s side.  One day, Chesterton writes, he was taking a walk in the woods with a man whose " . . . pointed beard gave him something of the look of Pan.”  At one point this companion said to him: "’Do you know why the spire of that church goes up like that?’ I expressed a respectable agnosticism, and he answered in an off-hand way, ‘Oh, the same as the obelisks; the Phallic Worship of antiquity’. Then I looked across at him suddenly as he lay there leering above his goat-like beard; and for the moment I thought he was not Pan but the Devil. No mortal words can express the immense, the insane incongruity and unnatural perversion of thought involved in saying such a thing . . ." (Everlasting Man, p. 152).

These words are a striking and prophetic rebuke to Christopher West’s efforts to employ “phallic symbolism to describe the Easter candle,” as Dr. David Schindler pointed out in his critique of West.  Hugo Rahner has pointed out where these aberrant ideas about “phallic symbolism” came from: pagan mythology, not authentic Christianity. (See his book, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, 1963)

Chesterton’s passage should be read  by anyone who believes that whatever is sexual gives us a spiritual message, when in fact the exact  opposite is the case.

Analogy and the Virgin Birth

This defective attitude might explain why Christopher West also believes that after the Holy Virgin gave birth to our Savior, she ejected a bleeding placenta, just as his wife had done after delivering their son (“Born of a Woman,” syndicated column, December 8, 2006, He assumes that these details magnify the mystery of Bethlehem.

Dietrich von Hildebrand would have absolutely opposed such ideas. I recall attending my husband’s talks in his apartment on Central Park West. He meditated on the Holy Mass, and on numerous passages of the New Testament. When talking about the Annunciation or the Nativity, he made his hearers realize that we were entering a "holy zone”, which called for silent adoration. The Archangel Gabriel's visit to Mary is clothed in mystery. But in a way, Bethlehem is still more mysterious: St. Luke tells us absolutely nothing concrete: we know that Mary gave birth to a son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

The moment calls for silent adoration. Angels are not mentioned . St. Joseph is not mentioned.  We do know, however, and this is a dogma of our faith, that she was a Virgin, prius ac posterius. The conception was miraculous; the delivery was miraculous. Any intrusion into this mystery would have been a source of grief to Dietrich von Hildebrand who, because he recited Vespers and Compline every day, knew  Psalm 130 well: "I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me".

For Christopher West to offer graphic, speculative  details about the Virgin Birth—like the ejected bleeding placenta—underscores my point. The analogy of the Virgin Birth with the birth of West’s own son is mistaken. The latter, though obviously a great blessing, was not conceived, through God,  by a Virgin; and it was not the product of a miraculous delivery. Further, to "tear the veil"  away from Bethlehem, and  to believe an imaginary, explicit description of it is a more powerful way of referring to the mystery of mysteries, is something that Dietrich von Hildebrand would, as I say, have fiercely contested. Between a normal birth, and the mystery of Bethlehem, lies an abyss which man - out of trembling reverence—should not traverse.
Silent adoration is the only valid response to such a mystery.


Christine said...

Alice von Hildebrand is such a gem.

Terry Nelson said...

She is so right on. I find myself getting annoyed when her critics say she is old and therefore old fashioned and out of touch. That is so far from the truth. God bless her!

elena maria vidal said...

She IS a gem, Christine.

Terry, I remember back in the 70's hearing people say that the Catholic faith itself was old and needed to be updated. But truth, like beauty, is "ever old and ever new."

Enbrethiliel said...


Chesterton's passage should be read by anyone who believes that whatever is sexual gives us a spiritual message, when in fact the exact opposite is the case.

This was also the problem a few years ago, when The DaVinci Code had everyone a-flutter about sex as some sort of natural sacrament! That might be true for pagans, but not for Christians!

(As you can tell, Elena, I'm getting a lot from this "read along"!)

elena maria vidal said...

I had to break it up for myself. It makes it easier to digest!

Enbrethiliel said...


I forgot to say the first time that I think that modesty as a form of Christian asceticism is a great way to look at the matter. It certainly brings the focus back from "He should control himself" to "What can I do about this?"

Too often, women will play the "tua culpa" game themselves when they dress immodestly, saying it is men's fault for having the "wrong" reactions to what they are wearing.

It kind of reminds me of the way Mac fans have been responding to criticism of the new iPhone: "You're not holding it right!" But if people are holding something that purports to be a phone the way a phone is supposed to be held, then the problem isn't with the people. And if a woman's dress is showing off her figure and making men look at her, the problem isn't with the men.

elena maria vidal said...

VERY astute observation, E.!

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